You can’t do it all – Choose less

“Done right, an essential intent is one decision that settles one thousand later decisions. . . .

One strategic choice eliminates a universe of other options and maps a course for the next five, ten, or even twenty years of your life. Once the big decision is made, all subsequent decisions come into better focus.”
– Greg McKeown

When I saw the book Essentialism applauded by Michael Hyatt, I decided to read it myself. I’m glad I did.


Some may think it’s just another time-management book, but it’s actually a life-prioritizing book.

Its main goal is to convince you that you can’t do it all, so choose correctly what you will do.

But how do we filter the important from the unimportant when we have so many choices?

Author Greg McKeown says essentialism is similar to cleaning out the closet of our lives. Just as we need to keep the clutter out of our physical closets, so too in our behaviors and habits. Ask yourself questions like, “Do I love this or wear it often or look great in it?” If it no longer fits your life goals, eliminate it.

Choosing is the first and most crucial skill that McKeown says we need to develop. Make decisions by design, not default.

Here are some questions sprinkled throughout the book to ask yourself as you make life choices:

  • Will this activity or effort make the highest possible contribution toward my goal?
  • What am I deeply passionately about?
  • What am I particularly talented at?
  • What meets a significant need in the world?
  • What do I want to go big on?
  • Do I absolutely love this?
  • If I could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?
  • Is this essential?
  • What’s important now?

He also gives practical suggestions of things you may already know to do, but seldom do. Such as,

  • Add 50 percent to your time estimates

“Not only does this relieve the stress we feel about being late (imagine how much less stressful sitting in traffic would feel if we weren’t running late), but if we do find that the task was faster and easier to execute than we expected (though this is a rare experience for most of us), the extra found time feels like a bonus.”

  • Remove the obstacle

“To remove the obstacle you need to replace the idea ‘This has to be perfect or else’ with ‘Done is better than perfect.’”

  • Celebrate small wins

“Research has shown that of all forms of human motivation the most effective one is progress. Why? Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.”

  • Do the minimal viable preparation

“Often just ten minutes invested in a project or assignment two weeks before it is due can save you much frantic and stressed-out scrambling at the eleventh hour. Take a goal or deadline you have coming up and ask yourself, ‘What is the minimal amount I could do right now to prepare?’”

Although this book wasn’t written from a spiritual perspective per se, you can easily take it there. Praying and wrestling about your essential purpose for existence is critical. You’ll more likely live out of that center if you’ll make conscious and routine adjustments. Books like this are reminders to clean out your life’s closet.

* * *

Here’s a 10-question quiz you can take to see if you’re an essentialist already.

My thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy of this book

20 thoughts on “You can’t do it all – Choose less

  1. Dianna

    Reading your post today, Lisa, reminds me of a series by Andy Stanley that I just watched over the weekend titled, “Breathing Room”. Time is one of the areas he covers. I was convicted…and this week has seen amazing results as His grace extended to me helped me realize some things I needed to say no to and also what I needed to say yes to. Thanks so much for sharing here.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Wasn’t that series so good? I listened to it last year (and now I’m hooked on listening to all of Andy Stanley’s sermons). I know we all know we need to say no to some things, but I still need those reminders periodically to actually do it.

  2. Melissa

    “You are still mired in the trap of Nonessentialist.” I can’t say I’m surprised. I do go through phases when I’m doing better, but right now I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. I finished my to-do list (all essential items) on Monday, but some items from Tuesday and Wednesday are still being rolled forward. They’re all essential, just not urgent. Some of this, however, is a lack of motivation, not a lack of Essentialism.

    I need to get back to writing who will be blessed by each item on my list! I did that for a couple of weeks and it was a big help, but I guess I didn’t do it long enough to develop a habit.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I go through those phases, too, Melissa. In this season I’m fairly focused, but if I took the quiz later, who knows what I’d score. ha.

      I do tend to roll over my to-do lists too though… But I’m trying now to estimate more time per item; I tend to underestimate how long everything will take just so I can cram more in, but that’s not the right route. I always have far more that I want to do in a day than is possible–including some relaxation time. 🙂

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Hmm. I’ll be the contrarian.

    Essentialism isn’t a concept of which I’m enamoured. On a direct and practical basis, it leads to a reduction in opportunities for serendipitous discovery whence magic comes.

    Beyond that, I have found that some of the things that seemed minor, things I might have well discarded, have proven to be the most important things in my life, because I gave them time and attention even though there was no direct, or event ‘possible’ payoff.

    Not possible without God’s grace, and it seems to me that the seemingly silly or futile tasks which we may perform ‘just because’ are the widest doors through which that grace can enter our hearts.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I appreciate hearing contrarian views, Andrew. Those make us think. 🙂

      I definitely see what you’re saying and agree–I don’t know how the author would respond, but I’m guessing he’d say that having an open mind for new and unexpected things would qualify as one of our “essentials.” ? There have been lots of things in my own life that I’ve just kind of stumbled into, that ended up proving valuable. Definitely God’s grace. I want to keep a wide margin open for that. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kim Adams Morgan

    Lisa, While the book does sound interesting, I think I’m falling in there with Andrew on this one. I’m a Type A anyway, not much falls off my radar. It’s hard for me to let go, just let things happen, and trust God. There is one thing in particular (private) I am thinking of; if I had followed this path I would not have discovered it. God opened this door and I reluctantly walked through it and trusted. It was the best decision I could have ever made.

    If this book is meant to clear the deck to give you “breathing room” (I’m familiar with Andy Stanley’s work and love it), then I can see why this would be successful. We can’t be good disciples when we are stressed and running around managing a million things.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      You make a good point too, Kim. It reminds me of the advice “Do your best!”, which to some people is needed to up their quality of work, but to perfectionists, better advice might be the opposite: “Doing something imperfectly is still worth doing.” (if that makes sense)

      Your second paragraph captures the author’s intent: to not overfill your life with things that don’t matter to you, thus leaving no space for things that do. Breathing room and margin are definitely items he encourages. Like you said, without that, we have no open areas for following unknown paths, which often lead to some of life’s richest treasures! I’m glad you followed such a path. Stepping out in faith is never easy….

  5. ceil

    Hi Lisa! I am going to write down the title to this book, I think I it would be really useful. Making priorities is one thing, but then backing up the importance I put on them with concrete behaviors is a whole different one. I think that’s what separates people who keep on going from those who drop out. If it’s important, then I should do what I can to nurture and protect it.

    Thank you for telling us about this great title!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      That’s a great differentiation to make, Ceil: we can have great goals, but it’s not enough if we don’t make them concrete.

      You’re also right that too often we don’t realize the need to protect them, not only from bad things (although that, too), but just from busy things.

  6. floyd

    I’ve began to implement some of these things naturally, by default, from being what my uncle used to call, “Plum tuckered”. Saying “no” is getting easier and easier for me, I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer. If it’s not worthy of mentioning as part of our legacy that honors God and our family’s, it’s probably not worth the time or energy…

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Good point–sometimes our fatigue naturally weeds out the unessential. And it works in reverse too: weeding out the unessential can help reduce our fatigue. Love your last statement about deciding what’s worth doing…

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’d love to see your bookshelves, Jean, since we tend to have the same taste, plus our similar bent toward contemplative practices. Too bad we don’t live closer!

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